It is in cities that the desires and fears of diverse multitudes come together to create civilisations, writes Koli Mitra.
Civilisation” is a word that evokes cultural sophistication. It suggests knowledge, enlightenment, arts, sciences, and commerce. It implies intellectual and material progress and a moral consciousness. At its root, though, it literally just means being “citified.” Similarly, “civil” connotes refined, polite, thoughtful, and a “civic” sense (or “civic” value) has to do with public justice and fair-mindedness. But etymologically speaking, these words, too, simply mean “urban” or “of the city.”
It’s no surprise that our understanding of the highest achievements of human society should be so inexorably entwined with the idea of cities, even though it is clear from history that plenty of cultural development (including social organisation, codes of ethics, material/technological inventions, and artistic expression) also occurred in agrarian societies. But the advent of cities, like the development of language and agriculture before it, was a game changer, setting off an explosion of human cultural flowering and “civilisation” unlike anything that existed before in terms of scale, quality or variety.
Why is that? Just what is so special about cities, anyway? Is it the material advantage? While any little hamlet can become prosperous, it is limited in the kinds of things it can do. An icy, seaside fishing village somewhere in northern Eurasia can be rich in its own produce, but it can’t diversify much. It doesn’t have the terrain or flora to also raise cattle. Its climate is too cold and its soil too salty to grow many kinds of grain and other edible plants. There is insufficient sunlight to grow flax for weaving linen or grapes for making wine. But a city in the same geographic location would be able to harness the power of many villages—doing many different things and coming up with many small technical improvements—and mix all of it together to develop a vastly richer way of life for its own citizens, and also for the citizens of various villages that support it (and that it supports, in return).
The advent of cities, like the development of language and agriculture before it, was a game changer, setting off an explosion of human cultural flowering and “civilisation” unlike anything that existed before in terms of scale, quality or variety.
Of course, economic history is rife with complicated and sometimes paradoxical relationships between specialisation, diversification, and consolidation of skills as well as resources. Such economic changes gave rise to cities, making them both possible and necessary. In turn, cities facilitated as well as required more and more such changes. Arguably, the consequences have been both brilliant and devastating.
But economics was just the beginning. There was something else going on with cities. The first cities undoubtedly grew up as engines for wealth generation (and its corollary, fortresses for protecting that wealth from marauders). But their bigger contribution to human cultural history, at least in my book, is not that initial raison d’être but a wonderful side effect.
People in cities didn’t invent telescopes or build cathedrals or perform plays or host symposia because their new wealth somehow translated to creative inspiration and curiosity about the world, nor because they thought doing these things would fetch them more wealth. Their creative urges and abilities were being informed and enhanced by something entirely new: unprecedented access to other people. Lots of people. Lots of very different types of people with strange experiences and points of view.
I think this is the most important feature of a city: not its collection of public works, its administrative efficiency, its laws, its fortification walls, its sewer system, or even its libraries, but its function as a point of confluence of diverse human energies, floating in a multitude of different directions but getting mixed together in the funnel of the city—yielding friction and synergy—being caught in each other’s currents and sparking off unexpected new bolts of energy. It has always been through cities that ideas spread, because cities are where people of disparate backgrounds and customs bump into and reckon with each other, whether through conflict, cooperation or understanding.
Throughout history, people travelling to faraway cities (usually for commerce) have ended up exchanging much more than their wares. They shared and acquired new ideas, attitudes, customs, tastes and values, new techniques for doing things, new intellectual puzzles to ponder. Then they built on each other’s knowledge. They influenced each other’s art and music and religion. This kind of great cultural cross pollination has been absolutely essential for the giant leaps forward in human civilisation in the past five to three millennia. Without access to a wide range of building blocks from around the world, each of our little regional collection of settlements would have inched along slowly, in isolation from the rest of humanity. If everyone had to invent algebra separately for themselves, it would probably take an extremely long time until anyone came up with trigonometry.
And that cross-pollination, which can only result from extensive travel (and at least a few people travelling truly vast distances), is only possible if there are cities to go to, where strangers are accepted; where public accommodations are available; where enough commercial activity takes place that an adventurer can justify the trip to his patron/financier.
It has always been through cities that ideas spread, because cities are where people of disparate backgrounds and customs bump into and reckon with each other, whether through conflict, cooperation or understanding.
So, clearly, transience and the presence of strangers are essential to cities. And yet, the most vital part of a city’s life and character involves its residents and their sense of permanence and identity as bound up with the geography and community of their city. While “land” was traditionally much more important to agrarian societies, the historical relationship between a person and their land was mostly one of proprietorship, not a source of identity. The land was valuable for its utility. Identity came from one’s family. Often, people of a “realm” were loyal (or at least beholden) to a monarch, to whom they were “subject” as a result of conquest or the threat of dispossession from their lands or livelihoods.
Cities were different. Much like modern urbanites, city-dwellers of past eras expressed a natural sense of belonging to their city even if they didn’t particularly like it and/or had a long list of complaints about it. The city was the first organisation of human society that formally recognised a certain cooperative independence in and among individuals (or individual households, at least) long before the creation of formal “democracies” or “republics” (which were also first developed in city-states, of course).
This history is probably why the word “citizenship”, which means the recognised (and co-equal) membership in a geopolitical unit, is also derived from “city.” I don’t want to make too much of this word, however. Not all languages use a word derived from “city” to express the idea of a person’s belonging to a geopolitical unit. Even in English, the word “national” communicates the same idea.
Cities were different. Much like modern urbanites, city-dwellers of past eras expressed a natural sense of belonging to their city even if they didn’t particularly like it and/or had a long list of complaints about it.
But I do find “citizen” to be an apt descriptor, because the idea of such belonging first rose in cities and it still makes the most sense in the context of cities. National patriotism can be a received sentiment. An individual often has no real visceral sense of belonging to a vast nation (even less, the nation belonging to her). But a city, with its rhythms, its traffic patterns, its other denizens, its problems, its sights, sounds and smells, becomes uniquely enmeshed in each person who calls it home, even if that person is a transplant. In this way, cities also transcend nations and become the true geographic basis for many people’s cultural identities.
I know “New Yorkers” from around the world who are invested in this city and identify with it with every bit as much genuineness and loyalty as the natives, even though they have no intention of ever becoming “Americans” in any way. They participate in community gardens and cleanup projects. They serve as volunteer firefighters and soup kitchen cooks. But they have no interest in the state primary elections and caucuses, the next Supreme Court nominee, or the Confederate Flag controversy.
A city has a life and character of its own that cannot be contained or defined strictly by the nation (or, historically, the kingdom or empire) that it belongs to. A city retains this identity through radical changes in the economic, demographic, and political landscape over time. I know Marathi, Gujarati, and Tamil families who have lived in Kolkata for a few generations and no longer feel that they are “from” Maharashtra, Gujarat, or Tamil Nadu. They are from Kolkata. Interestingly, they rarely describe themselves as being “from West Bengal”. They are from Kolkata. That’s all.
A city has a life and character of its own that cannot be contained or defined strictly by the nation (or, historically, the kingdom or empire) that it belongs to. A city retains this identity through radical changes in the economic, demographic, and political landscape over time.
The great thing about this kind of identity is that it’s incredibly local and place-aware without being parochial in any way. Cities, especially great cosmopolitan cities, embody the old adage of thinking globally and acting locally. My German “New Yorker” friend has a truly global perspective when thinking about the environment and economics and the far-reaching impact of human activities. He is not caught up in petty identity politics and clannish tribalism that have been saturating national and “ethnic” political identities lately. And yet is exquisitely attuned to the needs of his local community. He buys his food from local farmers’ markets. He gives donates local battered women’s shelter and volunteers at soup kitchens.
I am not an advocate of one type of living. I think villages, hamlets, small, country-towns all have important things to contribute to the total human existence. Perhaps even the much maligned suburb has a positive role to play. But I think cities will—and cities must—continue to be the engines of civilisation. In the age of the internet, we might think we have outgrown the need for physical places to be points of confluence for humans. But we would be mistaken.
Given the nature of human empathy and emotional hard-wiring, personal, face-to-face exposure to people, even in short and seemingly “meaningless” ways, has more of a relational impact than virtual interactions. We need exposure to each other in ways that don’t allow us to edit or curate our responses and engagement with one another. We need more than just pre-screened and customised experiences. We need accidental and unexpected cross pollination. We need ideas to be aired out in person in spaces that are at once cosmopolitan and hyperlocal.
A city is still the place where all of this happens.